Monday, July 18, 2011

Ethical scandals hurt journalism

The fallout from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal is still falling out. Top news executives in Britain and the United States have resigned, along with the commander of Scotland Yard, and at least one News Corp. executive has been arrested.

It's a sad commentary on the state of journalism, but subterfuge is not unknown in the news business. More than a decade ago, the Cincinnati Inquirer faced a phone-hacking scandal of its own, along with a multi-million libel suit brought by Chiquita, the target of an extensive investigation by the newspaper. Even the beatified Woodward and Bernstein stepped over the line in their Watergate investigation. In "All the President's Men," they tell of finding the names of grand jury members in a courthouse filing cabinet and attempting to contact the grand jury members — an absolute no-no in the criminal justice system. The judge read them the riot act, and Woodward and Bernstein went on to look elsewhere for their next scoop.

With newspapers struggling to just survive today, the ethical issues that were all the rage 25 years ago have faded as topics of discussion at news association gatherings. In the 1980s, newspapers were adopting strict ethics codes as a means of garnering public confidence. Some codes were so restrictive that a reporter risked being fired if she accepted a flower or a soft drink from a news source. When I was a newspaper editor, I tried to focus on the bigger issues — identify yourself as a newspaper reporter, tell the truth, don't reveal confidential information, double-check any controversial statements, be accurate, don't embellish the facts you're given, attribute all information to its source, don't give even the appearance of prejudice.

In the post-Watergate era, "investigative reporting" had a brief heyday. Some news organizations resorted to hidden cameras, disguises and false identities to pursue a story. Remember the ABC News report about repackaging outdated meat at Food Lion? I was never comfortable with the tactic of having a reporter hired as a supermarket employee and luring other employees into potentially damaging comments recorded on a hidden camera.

But these abuses of journalistic principles (and not everyone would consider them abuses) pale in comparison to tapping the cell phones or voice mail of news subjects. The News of the World apparently tapped the voice mail of murder victims and government officials. Whatever "scoops" the now-closed newspaper gained could not have been worth the cost in ethical lapses and public shame. The damage this episode has done to journalism as a whole is an even greater worry.

I've always held that journalists have a solemn obligation to live up to the protections of the First Amendment and to defend democracy by providing accurate, objective information about the workings of government. Unfortunately, many news consumers and some news executives have shamelessly measured news by its titillating gossip and shock value — aspects the Founding Fathers would not have cared to defend with a constitutional amendment.

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